Leading up to this year's Best of L.A. issue (due out Oct. 3), we'll be bringing you periodic lists of some of the best things we've found to eat and drink around town. Ice cream sandwiches and bowls of tsukemen, fish tacos and dan dan mien, cups of boba and glasses of booze. Read on.
The semantics for stuffed grape leaves have gone totally haywire. Though commonly referred to as dolma, they technically should go by the appellation sarma, a Turkish word that means “to wrap.” Dolma, also Turkish, refers to big stuffed vegetables, usually red or green peppers, filled with a flavored meat mixture. Most Greek restaurants still refer to their stuffed grape leaves as dolmades, so for the purpose of this story, we'll call the Greek grape leaves by this name.
Dolmades are quite plain — flavored only with dill, lemon juice, cucumber and yogurt, as opposed to their Middle Eastern counterparts that are stuffed with several other ingredients, including stewed tomatoes, parsley, red peppers, paprika or cayenne, and in some cases nuts. Despite their simplicity, Greek dolmades are still mouth-watering, as are the more complex sarma. Whether you're eating them as meze or as a quick lunch on the run, stuffed grape leaves are refreshing, filling and wholly addictive.
Papa Cristo's is to Greek food what Mercado Buenos Aires is to Argentine cuisine — a restaurant, bakery and bazaar of foodstuffs offering everything from Greek olives to frozen phyllo dough to Greek booze. You can buy seven dolmades for $5.99, or, if you want to buy in bulk, $39.99 buys you 75 pieces with tzatziki, the bright cucumber yogurt sauce. These are shorter than sarma, about two inches in length, and, as mentioned above, they're stuffed with a simple recipe of rice, dill, lemon juice and a very light yogurt sauce. As a testament to their freshness (a real must with dolmades), the grape leaves are nice and tender — nobody wants to chew through leathery grape leaves, no matter how inebriated you may be from ouzo. 2771 W. Pico Blvd, Los Angeles; 323-737-2970.
You will be thoroughly disappointed if you walk into any of the Zankou Chicken satellites, offshoots from the original “fast-casual” restaurant in Hollywood, and try to order sarma. They won't have them. We know. We've tried it. We've tried it more than once. The only Zankou Chicken that sells stuffed grape leaves is the Hollywood restaurant. Though they arrive cold in a plastic to-go container, they are still pretty damn good. Unlike the grape leaves from Papa Cristo's, these have a big gust of flavor and a decent amount of heat. Because dolmades is a dish best served at room temp, it's best to let these sit out for thirty minutes so you can get the most bang for your $5.99. 5065 W. Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles; 323-665-7842.
Elena's, a staple of Glendale, is one of the only places in town that serves meat-stuffed grape leaves in addition to the vegetarian kind, and you can order half-and-half if you prefer, which makes a full-on, protein-packed meal. Both are served warm in a garlic yogurt sauce that veers a bit on the oily side, but thankfully you can order that on the side. The vegetarian grape leaves are certainly more Armenian than Greek, filled with the requisite tomatoes and paprika. You get a whopping eight grape leaves for $7.99, so don't fill up on the complimentary pita bread before they arrive. 1000 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale; 818-241-5730.
For all the flack Van Nuys gets for being, well, Van Nuys, it is actually home to some very fine restaurants, and Koko's Middle Eastern Food is no exception. This is a secret gem tucked away in a strip mall on Vanowen — very easy to miss — serving up essentially homemade Armenian classics. The family-run business draws diners in from all corners of the valley and even L.A. proper — a loquacious diner was eager to tell us that he drove all the way from Beverly Hills just for the lamb chops.
The dolmades here stands out for not only its freshness and flavor, but also its unique texture. These are the only ones we found in L.A. that include walnuts (or any nuts) in their recipe, so if you're one of those serious allergic types with an epinephrine syringe handy, opt for a different spot. The walnuts add a great crunch to the soft grape leaves, and these also offer the unexpected and fragrant addition of freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice, another anomalous ingredient. It's definitely worth staying for a whole meal; the shish kebab is some of the best around town. 16935 Vanowen St., Van Nuys; 818-708-1877.
Carousel sits snug in the southeast corner of the Hye Plaza strip mall in East Hollywood (Hye is Armenian for Armenian) and has served up top-notch Middle Eastern food for 31 years and counting. Though they have a Glendale location serving the same food, it's filled with far greater pomp — fancy-pants tables and decorations — and circumstance — on weekends you'll find sequin-clad belly dancers shimmying to festive Middle Eastern music. If you want to sit, relax and focus solely on your food, it might be best to head to their location in the Hye Plaza, where nothing but the food will be on your mind.
These grape leaves are filled with bold flavors and lots of stewed and minced tomatoes, and they definitely pack the greatest heat of all those mentioned on this list. If your palate is pretty wimpy, this heat may be a bit much, but for the serious eaters out there it's deliciously assertive. It's ironic that these dolmades are served with a lemon wedge given these have, in addition to their heat, the most salient citrus flavor. The citrus and the heat balance each other delightfully, making some of the best stuffed grape leaves you'll ever eat outside of an Armenian home. 5112 Hollywood Blvd., #107, Los Angeles; 323-660-8060.
Restaurant kitchens are universally dominated by males, so it's worth nothing that one of the most cherished and long-standing Middle Eastern restaurants in all of Los Angeles, if not the most cherished, has a kitchen helmed by a Armenian-Lebanese woman. Everything about chef Sossi Brady's grape leaves rocks the Kasbah — their flavor, their remarkably tender texture, and their freshness.
These are the loosest grape leaves of the bunch, far lower in rice content to tomatoes, which adds to their ethereality. Though more restrained on the heat scale than those at Carousel, these still teem with irresistible flavor. One order comes with the standard pita, pickled beets, and Kalamata olives and is fit enough for a meal, but do yourself a favor and order some succulent kebab before you slip out — dolmades keep very well for a few days, so you can take some of those to-go. 4905 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-662-9325.
Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer and a pastry cook at Lucques. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.